Amidst speculations of Modi’s “neighborhood first policy” failing in effectively garnering friendship of immediate neighbors, Nepalese Prime Minister Khadge Prasad Sharma Oli, adhering to the tradition of making first official foreign trip, was in New Delhi, on three-day visit from April 6th to 8th. His visit comes a day after Maldives snubbed India by asking New Delhi to take back a helicopter operating from the Addu atoll. Around the same time, having won local elections, opposition parties supported by Mahinda Rajapaksha, former President of Sri Lanka, initiated a no-confidence motion against the current India-friendly Ranil Wickramasinghe’s government. Both these events further raised serious doubts about dwindling India’s influence in the neighborhood.
Oli has taken over as 27th Prime Minister of Nepal for the second time in February this year. Oli, known to be pro-Chinese leader of the Communist Party of Nepal Unified Marxists Leninists (CPN-UML) joined hands with Pushpa Kamal Dahal (Prachanda) of Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) and other 13 parties to fight in Parliamentary elections held in December last year. The leftist coalition combined swept elections clinching close to two-thirds majority, annihilating the dominance of the right-wing party Nepali Congress (NC) of Sher Bahadur Deuba. The left alliance of Nepal for long has been pro-Chinese and Oli effectively stitched an alliance with various leftist groups that thrived on the anti-India sentiment. Days after taking over as Prime Minister, Oli indicated his authoritarian ambitions by removing a Supreme Court judge, Parajuli much against the solidarity of his fellow judges. He brought investigative agencies under his control and appointed his trusted loyalists to key positions. Indicating that Supreme Court judges have connections with NGOs or political parties, he is intent on scuttling independence of judiciary. Armed with brute majority the left coalition is already invoked fears of plunging country into a dictatorial mode. But by and large, nations hailed the elections for an overwhelming majority can end Nepal’s long travails of political instability. Additionally, Constitution has introduced new provisions wherein parties are barred from raising no-confidence motion against less than two years old government. Indian sentiment had always played an immense role in Nepali elections. Massive defeat of Nepali Congress, perceived to be pro-Indian has been a big blow to India’s foreign policy. Unperturbed by the results, Indian delegation headed by Minister for External Affairs, Sushma Swaraj visited Nepal to congratulate the new dispensation and held talks with leftist coalition leaders expressing India’s willingness to work with new government. Towards, the end she met leaders of Nepali Congress.
The 14-month long Madhesis agitation which led to blockade of the Indo-Nepalese border not only crippled the transit of essential goods and services but also generated intense backlash against India. This agitation has critically undone Indian good will of rushing services within hours after Nepal was struck by massive earthquake in 2014 and fomented anti-Indian sentiment. At the height of agitation, Oli, in 2015, has turned to China and signed 10 MoUs including the landmark transit and transportation agreement. This included extension of railway line from China through Tibet to reduce dependence of the land-locked Himalayan country on India. With the agitation halting the Nepali trade through the Kolkata port 1000km from Nepal, Nepal approached China to use the Tianjin port 3000km away. Lately, Nepal broke Indian monopoly on internet services and teamed up Chinese services. From January, Chinese cyber companies have begun their operations in Nepal. Thus, Nepal steadily drifted towards China. For long, Tibet has served as an outer boundary while Nepal constituted the inner boundary between India and China. With Nepal slowly closing into China by signing OBOR in May 2017, New Delhi began to feel the heat. Growing Chinese penetration into Nepal, a country with which India shares porous borders can be a pernicious threat to India. Also, several rivers originating from Nepal flow down into Ganga have huge consequences in terms of ecology and hydrothermal potential for India. Chinese burgeoning influence is now posing a formidable threat to centuries old Indo-Nepalese ties built on interdependence, trust, and friendship.
Oli served as prime minister for a year between 2015-16 when the blockade was underway after the new constitution was amended. Defiant Oli refused to make amendments in the constitution to accommodate demands of Madhesis as a result, Prachanda withdrew support allegedly at the behest of India after which his regime has collapsed. Now, he is back in power with a sweeping majority and understandably, he might not have taken Indian role during the Madhesis agitation and subsequent loss of Prime Ministerial position kindly. Besides his affiliations to communist parties amply levitate him towards China.
Independent India as inheritors of the British legacy, largely believed South Asia to be its sphere of influence. The British ably defended paramountcy in the region by offering subsidies and refraining from interfering in the internal affairs of the protectorates. In return, smaller kingdoms pledged loyalty and never succumbed to rival powers. Independent India faltered in realigning itself to new realities got inadvertently drawn into domestic politics. This has typically been the case with Nepal. Though India and Nepal are closely connected by religion, culture and language, power asymmetry began to creep into what should have been a “special relationship”. Indo-Nepal friendship treaty of 1950, allowed free movement of people and goods between two nations and collaboration in foreign policy and defense related issues. The deep interdependence and connectivity, instead of building trust, bred resentment. Afflicted by “small country syndrome” Nepal felt intimidated and insecure and negative narratives began to feed into Indo-Nepalese bilateral relations. India has cared little to address Nepal’s insecurities which eventually snow balled into “anti-India sentiments”. Besides, India’s inability to deliver projects on time has severely exacerbated the fissures. Sandwiched between two big Asian giants, Nepal began switch sides from India and drifted towards China to “stand up” against India. While Nepal’s political dispensation has been highly critical of India’s interference in Nepal’s internal affairs, it is widely believed that China from behind the scenes managed to bring various left-wing parties in Nepal to fight jointly in the elections.
Oli’s visit to India comes at a time China’s forays into south Asian counties are at hilt and Indo-Nepalese relations mired in clouds of mistrust. Besides, Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi’s visit to Kathmandu in March after the new regime took charge added more fuel to India’s apprehensions. Setting the tone for his visit, days ahead of India trip, Oli announced in the Nepal parliament that he will not sign any agreement with India that would, “go against national interests of Nepal”. “We want to maintain dignified relationship with India while desisting anything that would be disgraceful to the nation”. So, essentially the visit has been an attempt to reset ties and bridge the trust deficit. India on its part, rolled out red carpet welcome to Oli who was received by home minister Rajnath Singh at the airport.
Both the prime ministers held talks and reviewed the entire spectrum of multifaceted bilateral ties and resolved to work together to take the relationship to “newer heights on the basis of equality, mutual trust, respect and benefit”. The two prime ministers have inaugurated the Integrated Check Post at Birgunj, Nepal and hoped that its early operationalization will enhance greater movement of goods and people. They witnessed the ground-breaking ceremony of Motihari-Amelkhunj cross border petroleum pipeline at Motihari, India. Build at a cost of 200 crores, the 69-km pipeline will deliver 2 million tonnes per annum of petroleum products to Nepal. To impart new dynamism into the relationship, both countries signed three agreements. India-Nepal: New Partnership in Agriculture, Expanding Rail Linkages: Connecting Raxaul in India to Kathmandu in Nepal, Connectivity between India and Nepal through inland waterways. This electric rail line might eventually pave way for a seamless connectivity with the Chinese built Shigatse-Khatmandu line. India has promised to complete the construction of two rail lines-Jayanagar-Bijalpura-Bardidas and Jogbani-Biratnagar in Nepal by this year. Plans for building three more rail lines is on books. In tune with Himalayan country’s new slogan of “Samriddha Nepal, sukhi Nepali”, to boost land-locked Nepal’s economic rejuvenation and reduce dependency on India, countries have given new thrust to energy, connectivity and transit issues.
During Oli’s visit India expressed willingness to walk extra mile to bridge the trust deficit. But Oli in his speech at a civic reception in New Delhi said, “Relations with neighbors differ from that of others. Good neighborliness demands harmonious co-existence forever. And trust is the cementing factor. It derives its strength from the observance of such fundamental principles as equality, justice, mutual respect and benefit as well as non-interference. As friendly neighbors, our two countries need to be aware of, and respect for, each other’s concerns and sensitivities. Nepal has not allowed its land to be used against the sovereign interests of India. We are firm in our resolve to maintain this position. And it is natural that we expect similar assurance from India”. With respect to 2015 blockade he said “we need to ensure that bilateral as well as regional connectivity and transit agreements run smoothly without interruption at all times. Recourse to obstacles in the movement of goods, services and people should have no place in today’s interconnected World and in interconnected neighborhood”. Clearly Oli has pinned blame on India for the agitation and its aftermath. The tenor of his speech indicates that Nepalese leadership is still mistrustful of India. It is unfortunate that India’s generosity towards Nepal is shrouded by intimidation and suspicion. While, Nepal is entitled to bemoan power asymmetry, by drawing closer to China, a much bigger neighbor than India, isn’t Nepal at a bigger risk of surrendering its national interests?